On Rotwelsch, the Central European Language of Beggars, Travelers and Thieves

My aunt Heidi, Günter’s widow, had trouble finding the right boxes, as she moved erratically around the attic, trying to read labels. Then she crouched down in a corner and said, quietly, “Here they are. Take your time.” She briefly looked at me as if to gauge my reaction, and left, eager to go back downstairs. I stood for a moment, disappointed. Just a bunch of boxes. The labels, carelessly scrawled with Magic Marker, were illegible.

I had come to the apartment that used to house the commune to find out more about Rotwelsch, my uncle, and his attitude toward his father. Three people had been around at the time and could tell me more. The first was my mother, but in the aftermath of my father’s death, she was holding things together from one day to the next and was in no condition to delve into the past. I knew that I would have to wait to speak to her.

Then there was my aunt Roswitha. She would have been a teenager when Günter became fascinated by Rotwelsch, but perhaps she would have some insight, an overheard conversation ages ago about her older brother and his new interest, a snide comment about Rotwelsch made by my grandfather. I would have to find an occasion to draw her out. And finally there was Heidi, the person most likely to know things about Günter, Rotwelsch, and the strange family history connected with it, which is why I had come to her first.

I dragged one box into the middle of the attic, where a small window let in some light. It contained folders of correspondence and manuscripts as well as books. The next three boxes were similar, but then I came across one holding 4-×-6 index cards, neatly arranged in wooden drawers. I took one drawer out, surprised by how heavy it was, and started flipping through the entries. The cards—there must have been hundreds of them—bore expressions and idioms, most of them typed, some corrected by hand. The last box, equally heavy, held dictionaries of Romani and Yiddish, pamphlets on hoboes and vagrants. They had seen a lot of use, their spines cracked and their covers coming off the binding. One book, almost torn to shreds, was entitled Rotwelsch. Yes, this was what I had been looking for: my uncle’s fabled Rotwelsch archive.

Combing quickly through the boxes, I saw that this was an archive that, at least superficially, looked similar to archives created by the police against Rotwelsch, complete with vocabulary lists, names of vagrants, and police records. I was fascinated by the figures that emerged from this extensive collection. Here were the ancestors of the people who had come to our house when I was growing up—escaped convicts, runaway apprentices, deserters, itinerant peddlers, tramps, professional thieves, beggars, hoboes, journeymen, knife grinders, tinkers, migrants, and anyone at odds with the authorities and without a fixed address.

Some members of the underground were organized into large gangs of robbers, especially in the eighteenth century. They would send a messenger, a baldower, to scout out a promising target (in Hebrew, baal means possessor, owner, and davar, word; in Yiddish, bal-dover means the person in question). Once the leader had received enough information to proceed, he (almost always men) would call for a gathering of his associates, the kochemer, or wise ones, to plan the robbery.

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